RAJEEV KHANNA | 8 JULY, 2020
Panchayats are opposing the move, and so are many hoteliers
The old adage that ‘haste makes waste’ is playing out in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh following the state government’s decision to open up the hotel industry as part of the unlockdown. With hoteliers and the owners of guest houses and B&Bs vertically divided amidst an onslaught of visitors lining up to enter the state, the result has been absolute chaos.
Orders issued by the Jai Ram Thakur led government reportedly exempt tourists from the quarantine requirement if they have a hotel booking of at least five days and are equipped with a COVID negative report issued in the past 72 hours. The government says it will monitor all interstate movement through registrations in the COVID e-pass software.
Although the idea is to promote tourism and encourage the reopening of hotels, hoteliers themselves are questioning the hurried decision – the majority of them oppose reopening the sector at a time when COVID cases are spiralling in the state. In the past week, positive cases grew at 2% per day (or 80% per month) according to government sourced data.
Many Himachal residents besides hoteliers are not happy with the move either, and some have started online campaigns against the move.
One of the most interesting developments is that Panchayats in many districts including Kullu have passed resolutions opposing the opening of hotels, pointing out that the move will also have a disastrous impact on the apple season if the reopening of tourism leads to the further spread of infection.
“The government should have taken all the stakeholders into confidence and the Standard Operating Procedures should have been decided according to the local needs, instead of imposing SOPs meant for five star hotels. In our state almost 99% of hotels have just five to 40 rooms. Majority of the SOPs cannot be applied here.
“We are told that tourists cannot be denied entry even if they are coughing and sneezing. There is an SOP about establishing a rapid response team. It needs to be understood that we are in the business of running hotels, we are not medical experts,” Sanjay Sood, president of the Shimla Hotels and Restaurants Association, told The Citizen.
Sood remarked that “The moves being made are contradictory. We are faced with a situation where a Himachali returning to his native place has to undergo institutional or home quarantine for 14 days, but tourists with a five-day booking can roam free.
“If hotels are to be opened while Corona cases are on the rise, what was the need for the lockdown in the first place? And why should bars remain closed when buses are being allowed to run packed to capacity?”
Hoteliers are also sceptical about the whole business of medical certificates. They point to reports in the media that COVID negative certificates are being issued upon payment by certain laboratories in some cities in the plains.
“My clients have been telling me that the doctors in their cities are refusing to carry out tests for allowing them to undertake excursions in the hills. The doctors refuse to undertake the procedure of wearing PPE kits to carry out Corona tests and often say they would rather attend to genuine COVID19 sufferers than test and issue certificates to the privileged lot wanting to visit the hills for a holiday,” said a hotelier from Manali requesting anonymity.
The proprietors of many smaller hotels want the industry to reopen, citing the economic hardship they have endured during the lockdown. They say the big hoteliers are not keen on reopening at this point of time as many of them are also apple growers, and are keen to focus on the apple harvest.
“They are not scared of harvesting apples with hundreds of labourers from outside the state, receiving payments in cash, interacting with transporters – but are worried only about tourists carrying valid medical certificates fearing they might bring Corona to their hotels? At least 200 trucks of apples move out from Kullu district daily in the apple season,” said another hotelier from Kullu.
Many hoteliers are of the opinion that the government was in a hurry to reopen the sector as it did not want to give the relaxations being sought by the hotel industry with regard to power bills etc.
“We understand we will have to learn to live with Corona and a lockdown cannot be extended forever. At the same time, all the stakeholders need to be taken into confidence and the unlocking has to be done in a systematic and rational manner, so that neither the industry nor the workers suffer in any way,” said Anil Kant, another hotelier from Manali.
Many hoteliers are of the view that one floor of the hotels will need to be kept reserved for customers who show symptoms of cold, cough and fever – which might also be because of sudden exposure to the cool climes of the hills. They further suggest that testing laboratories be opened in places close to the important tourist destinations here.
They are also taking on the government’s claims of having trained hotel operators in Standard Operating Procedures and managing the unlock.
“There has been just one training of 100 hoteliers in Shimla, and that too was a private initiative. Just 100 hotels do not make the entire hotel industry of Himachal Pradesh. And what about the smaller players like guest house owners and those running Bed & Breakfast units? There has to be complete transparency with everyone on board,” another hotelier observed.
Sources in the industry further pointed to the lack of communication between the policymakers at the top bureaucratic level and those who are supposed to implement the policies on the ground.
“The officials circulate things on social media while the police constable or Home Guard jawan on the ground is unaware of what has been decided. This leads to chaos at the entry points of the state,” said a source.
There have been reports of tourists rushing to enter the state from the Parwanoo barrier and the ensuing chaos, as many of them do not have an e-pass, proper registration or valid medical certificates.